Emotional Memories

JUNE 21, 2013

I could learn a few things about the discipline of making regular blog posts from my portrait client Diane Atwood. Recently, Diane received a Gold Lamplighter Award for her health and wellness blog, “Catching Health”. The honor was bestowed by the New England Society for Healthcare Communications.

A resident of Gorham, ME, Atwood is a former health care professional and television health reporter. She began writing her blog two years ago as a way to market her new freelance writing business, but Diane says the blog quickly took on a life of its own. She has updated it with a fresh design and some fun new features, like a recipe section she calls “Nom, Nom” and, my personal favorite, “I’m Not Your Mother, But…” Diane says she enjoys interviewing people, researching all things related to health and wellness and sharing information that might make a difference in someone’s life. “In short, I love what I do,” she says.

As I set up lights for our photo session, Diane shared the story of an experience she had two weeks earlier with her mother, Beverly, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. She had taken her for a walk on the Eastern Promenade in Portland. Her mother admired the blooming daffodils and was able to recall the words of William Wordsworth’s poem about the flowers, which she had learned 75 years earlier while in the third grade. Her mother observed a dog playing in the water, a ferry boat sailing across it, and gulls flying overhead. A few days later, Diane was going to take her mother to spend a day at an adult day care center. When she picked her up in the morning, her mother’s caregivers told Diane that Beverly had talked every day about her walk in the park with her daughter and the things they saw. When she retrieved her mother from day care at the end of the day, she asked her mother how the day had gone. Beverly replied, “I’m sure I had a good time. I just can’t remember anything I did.” Diane said she is learning about the importance for Alzheimer’s patients of creating emotional memories. For her mother, a day became memorable because she had shared it with her daughter. A day of activities with strangers was forgettable.

Events don’t have to be significant in order to be memorable. Sometimes it’s the ordinary, the stuff of our daily routines, which can be most precious. My web designer, Becky, asked me to do a portrait session a few weeks ago with her and her daughter, Piper. She wanted to give a print to her husband as a Father’s Day present. But Becky didn’t want a static photo of her posing with her daughter. Instead, she asked if I would document their morning routine together, before Becky heads out to work and Piper goes off to day care. I arrived around 6:30 a.m., and began photographing as Becky got Piper from her crib. We spent an hour together, with Becky getting her daughter dressed, singing songs, reading stories, and playing – starting the day as they do every day. Becky wanted to document this time for her daughter’s future, so that when she grows up, she can look back and see what her life was like in the time before she could form her own memories. This event became an emotional memory for me, as well. From my newspaper days up till now, I’ve always been amazed and felt a sense of privilege when people have allowed me into their homes to share some of their life stories with me. Those have ranged from times of enormous grief – such as one of my earliest assignments, going to the family home of a young Marine who was killed in the 1983 embassy bombing in Beirut – to happy events – such as college graduations – to an ordinary day, like any other – such as a mother and daughter spending time together. I designed a photo book for Becky of our morning together, and when she saw the story unfold across each page, she said she wants to do this every year. Me, too.

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